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Recollections of Pilgrimage:
Nine Days with the Guardian in 1957

by Bill Washington

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Chapter 2

Preparation for the journey

Planning for pilgrimage really started some years before I went. At the time I was investigating the Faith, back in the early 50's, I met up with one of the Bahá'í youth of that time, Frank Wyss, and there really were only a handful of youth in the whole of Australia. Frank was a chiropractor, working for Stanley Bolton Snr., and as part of his practice he travelled by rail to Leeton each month. As our friendship and my understanding of the Faith deepened, we planned together the ‘world trip' that young people dream of – ours starting in South Africa, buying a VW Combi-van and driving north, through Iran to Europe. On the way we also planned to visit Haifa on pilgrimage, and Frank made all the arrangements for this. However our plans were shattered by a cable from the Guardian, saying simply: "Postpone pilgrimage".

The reason for this was the persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran which had broken out during the mid-1950's which would make it difficult, even dangerous, to be travelling through Iran and meeting up with the Bahá'í friends, some of whom were Frank's in-laws, as his sister Lillian had married an Iranian boy, Suhayl ‘Ala'i. For Frank, this was the end of all planning for the trip; for me – and this indicates the poor understanding I had of the Faith at that time – it was certainly the end of the Haifa leg of the trip, but not the rest. I was all for going ahead, without Iran and Haifa. But not Frank; he proceeded to look for some other goal of the Ten Year Crusade, and chose the unopened goal of Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. Most of the island goals of the Plan had been filled during 1953-54 but a few of the more difficult ones remained unopened. Cocos was one of them. A bit browned off, I was thinking, "There must be an island for me" and at that time I had also met Shapoor Soheili, a young Iranian Bahá'í from Bombay, India, who was in Sydney en route for New Caledonia, from where he would try to enter the Loyalty Islands, another of the difficult and unopened goals. So it seemed the logical thing to go with him – one island was as good as another, for me – I just needed to be doing something "Bahá'í " and it was a time when going to some remote island goal was the thing to do, for any Bahá'í.

Once in Noumea it became obvious why the Loyalty Islands had been such a difficult goal: the islands, lying to the north-east of New Caledonia, were a "native reserve" and only people of French nationality were permitted to enter – which effectively excluded both Shapoor and me. (We did eventually open the goal with the arrival in Noumea of a French Bahá'í, Daniel Haumont, who was permitted to go there, briefly – but that is another story.) While we were trying to find some way to enter Loyalty Islands, Frank (by then, out of Cocos Islands, which he had succeeded in opening but could not stay) received another cable from the Guardian, indicating a date in January 1956 when we could make the pilgrimage. Frank went but I declined, cabling the Guardian that I was: "too busy, trying to get into Loyalty Islands". When I think back, in light of future events, really my heart sinks at the thought of ‘turning down' a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of meeting the Guardian but my feeling that this was the right thing to do, in terms of priority, was later confirmed in a letter from the secretary of the International Bahá'í Council, Hand of the Cause Leroy Ioas, who was also acting as secretary for the Guardian at that time.

Six months later, when my visa for New Caledonia expired and was not renewed, I returned to Australia and following another cable to the Guardian, received permission to make the pilgrimage in January 1957. Initially I had planned to take a Greek steamer to Piraeus, and fly from Athens to Israel, and had actually boarded the vessel in Melbourne – an old tramp steamer carrying a few passengers – when news came through that Israel had blown up the Suez Canal in what was later known as the Six-Days War. That was the route the boat planned to take and the only thing the shipping company could offer was to drop us off at some distant port, if the canal was not re-opened in time. This seemed not such a good option and, as the response to another cable to the Guardian confirmed the date of pilgrimage, hurried arrangements were made to book on a Lloyd-Triestino ship which had already left Melbourne but I could catch up with in Perth by taking a bus to Adelaide and overland express to Perth. This unplanned diversion was also fortuitous, as it enabled me to see the first Russian satellite (Sputnik) flying overhead on a roadside stop during the night bus drive to Adelaide, and also catch up with the Featherstone family in Adelaide. They had both been on pilgrimage following the conference in New Delhi in October 1953 that launched the Ten Year Crusade and the stories they told were a wonderful preparation for my own pilgrimage.

The boat journey to Italy was long and uneventful, calling in only at Cape Town (where I missed out on meeting Lowell and Edith Johnson, American pioneers there – while I was looking for them, they were looking for me on the boat, alerted to my coming by a letter from Jessie Revell, who looked after the needs of the Western pilgrims in Haifa. I did, however, keep in touch with Lowell over the years by letter and eventually caught up with him in Johannesburg in 1999) and Dakar in Senegal, and disembarking me one evening in Naples, from where I was able to catch a late train to Rome. I had planned to sleep the rest of the night at the rail station but the cold was so intense that I had to resort to a hotel opposite the station and in the morning set out to find Hand of the Cause Ugo Giachery, whose address had been given to me by Collis Featherstone, with the instruction that I "had to see Dr Giachery" while I was in Rome. It was, however, an old address, in a relatively new block of apartments belonging to the Vatican and adjacent to St. Peter's Square (which, incidentally, is round) where I dodged the peddlers selling their ‘genuine holy relics' by buying a small figure of St Christopher for my Catholic sister-in-law.

Another rather tortuous taxi ride took me to Dr Giachery's current residence in via Antonio Stoppani, just off one of the main thoroughfares of Rome, where I was warmly greeted by Dr Giachery and his wife Angeline. His first question to me was, "Where is you passport". On being told that it was in my suitcase which was still in the hotel, he immediately dispatched me with another person to fetch it – saying, "Don't ever leave your passport anywhere, even in the home of Dr Giachery". Rome was that sort of place in those days, with desperate people everywhere. His apartment seemed to be full of people and in between questions about the friends in Australia, especially how Mr Featherstone was taking his recent appointment, he introduced me to Fereydoun Khazrai who was also leaving that night for Israel, going on pilgrimage on the same plane, and instructed him to "Take care of this young man" – into which I could read: "Don't let him out of your sight; he is young and inexperienced, and too foolish to be wandering about on his own". That was probably correct. So when I left the warm hospitality of Dr Giachery that evening I spent some time with Mr Khazrai, as he shopped around for last-minute gifts. Actually I was rather surprised, as he was looking mainly for different kinds of perfumes, and seemed to know exactly what he was doing – I was not aware at that time that, in full compliance with the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Iranian men were much accustomed to using perfumes.

So by the time we reached Haifa, there was at least one Iranian pilgrim whom I had already met and was to see more of, as my routine quickly settled into having breakfast with the Iranian pilgrims – I seemed to be drawn to the Shrine of the Báb at first light, which was not that early as it was mid-winter by then, and I started each day in Haifa with an early morning visit to the Shrine and then breakfast of nuts, dried fruits and the hottest of hot tea. The men said that "if you could drink very hot tea, your wife would remain faithful to you". I didn't like tea, either hot or lukewarm, but I remember I drank it happily and without fuss, and really enjoyed this contact with another culture of the Faith. And also learned a great deal from the stories they exchanged about outstanding Bahá'ís and the early days of the Faith in Iran

Sorry to be long digressing with all this introduction but I feel it is a necessary prelude to the story I wish to tell you about pilgrimage in days when it was so very different.

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